11 January 1999
Our current howler: Leaving out the truth
Synopsis: Todays Post editorial shows the price we pay when scribes choose to leave out the truth.
Mr. Starrs Excess
Editorial, The Washington Post, 1/11/99
The Love Child Story Turns Into an Orphan
Howard Kurtz, The Washington Post, 1/11/99
Discussing the problems that journalists face in deciding when to print scurrilous charges, Howard Kurtz has this to say in this mornings Post:
KURTZ: As these various sexual bombshells detonate or implode, journalists may be among the casualties. If they eagerly report the allegations, they are accused of wallowing in sleaze. If they ignore the allegations, they are accused of covering up for one side or another. If they try to check out the allegations, they are criticized for invading peoples privacy...
We agree with every word that Kurtz said. But the analysts cheeks began to rouge, here at DAILY HOWLER World Quarters, because we ourselves have long suggested a press corps bias has been at work in the case of What Linda Tripp Said.
Weve suggested that it is the press corps love for accusers that has kept it from reporting Tripps grand jury testimony, in which Tripp contradicted Kathleen Willeys account of her Oval Office encounter with Clinton. Weve suggested the decision not to report What Tripp Said is part of a long-standing press corps practice, in which CelebCorps routinely suppresses information which casts doubt on what accusers have said. (And by the way, other examples abound. We regard this example as the most current and obvious.)
For the record, we have no doubt that many journalists have withheld What Tripp Said for reasons they believe to be principled. We suspect the reasoning would go like this: we dont want to take part in a process in which those who charge Clinton get smeared for coming forward.
But, while were sure this reasoning may be sincere, we do think its wholly misguided. Its simply impossible to defend the process that has occurred in the Willey case. The press corps gave wide attention to Willeys charges, when the charges were made in March. Then, a lemming-like herd of pundits all swore they Believed Every Word Willey Said. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/2/98. Prepared to be embarrassed.)
To report the charge, and then suppress the challenge, creates an evidentiary imbalance that cannot be defended--especially since the contradiction comes from so credible a source. There is no doubt that Linda Tripp knew Kathleen Willey; and Tripp testified about Willey, under oath, in a setting where she had no incentive to lie. Tripp testified under a grant of immunity, and could get in trouble only for lying. To lie about the ICs favorite gal in a dangerous situation like that--well, it would be a very strange thing for a savvy player like Linda Tripp to do.
But the suppression of truth about What Linda Tripp Said is more than just a remarkable case of unfairness to Clinton. The corps refusal to report What Tripp Said stymies debate in other areas, too. Example: this mornings editorial, in the Post, concerning Starrs indictment of former Willey friend Julie Steele. The Post scores Starr for having proceeded with indictment of so minor a figure. But the Post cannot argue a full-blooded case because it wont report the things Linda Tripp Said.
Here is how the Post proceeds in scoring Mr. Starrs excess:
THE POST: The indictment is disturbing, aside from the stupidity of the timing. It deals with a matter utterly marginal to the questions that provoked Mr. Starrs investigation. It seems peculiar that of all the people who have either admitted to or been accused of lying under oath, Ms. Steele is so far the only one to face criminal charges. [Our emphasis]
The Post assumes the indictments timing is stupid, rather than a deliberate attempt to influence impeachment proceedings. But look how hamstrung the Post writers are by their failure to report What Tripp Said. Linda Tripps contradiction of Willeys account dwarfs the contradiction of Julie Hiatt Steele. As The Hotline asked in its Friday edition: if Starr has indicted Julie Steele, why hasnt he indicted Tripp too?
There may be a perfectly good answer to that, but the Post isnt asking the question. The most obvious question about Starrs conduct is one they refuse to discuss. Rather than report to readers the Things Tripp Said, the Post prefers to pen worthless, tamed musings. The Post withholds an obvious question about a very powerful official, because it refuses to report What Tripp Said.
We have said it before, and we say it again: here at THE HOWLER, we do not know what happened between Clinton and Willey. We have no way of knowing what may have occurred. We dont know if what Tripp says is true.
But we also dont know if what Willey said was true, and what Willey said got total coverage. It has profoundly affected what many Americans think about the character of President Clinton. And many believe, because of Willeys account, that what Paula Jones said must also be true.
The suppression of Linda Tripps startling testimony is a deep offence to the public discourse. This morning, the Post again presents a sanitized treatment of a very important public official. And why does the Post present this cheapened account? Because, in the remarkable case of What Linda Tripp Said, it refuses to say whats true.
What price truth? Were puzzled by one part of Kurtzs column this morning. Kurtz is quoting Star editor Phil Bunton about its latest ridiculous conduct:
KURTZ: Bunton, who warned last week that the story might be a hoax, acknowledged that we did a pretty bad job of keeping this under wraps. But he said the Star only paid a very nominal amount to take the blood test.
Buntons statement goes unchallenged by Kurtz. But this is what the Washington Times reported in its own sad page one story last Wednesday (1/6/99):
WOODY WEST, Washington Times: Now the Star is said to have found [Bobbie Ann Williams], obtained her cooperation, paid her a sum in the low six figures for her trouble, and is conducting DNA tests...
Is the low six figures now a very nominal amount for a public liar to take a blood test? Somebodys spinning somebody here. The contradiction should have been challenged and resolved.
And incidentally, isnt this whole thing a tale of the times, a remarkable example of press corps culture? On the one hand, a prostitute, apparently paid for a lie, gets her story spread all over town. On the other hand, a credible figure gives detailed, sworn testimony, and because it challenges a treasured accuser, no one in town dares report it.